Irwin Zahn founded General Staple Company in 1954 in the garment district of New York City. This initial concept grew into a global electronic interconnect company, later named Autosplice, Inc. and moved to San Diego, California. In 2011, after 57 years, Irwin sold the business and started a new venture – the Moxie Foundation.
Read below for Irwin’s take on entrepreneurship, risk taking, the Moxie Foundation and the new partnership with Ashoka U that aims expand students’ exposure to entrepreneurship globally.
Q: How do you define entrepreneurship?
A: You can find entrepreneurs in a garden, a factory, or in a school. Entrepreneurs are everywhere! You know you have found an entrepreneur when you meet someone who takes chances and calculated risks.
In the world of taking risks, it is not a risk to cross the street when the lights are not in your favor. That’s not meaningful. You are simply expediting a process. Entrepreneurship is making change for the benefit of somebody or some group. There has to be a purpose and something behind it worth doing.
Q: Tell us about when you first took a risk.
A: When I was young, I was working as a delivery boy in a dry cleaning store. We used pins to modify or shorten garments. Pins were all over the place! There was a magnetic device to pick up the pins, but then you had to brush the pins off with your hands. I had a better way of stripping the pins from the magnet. The sample never works the first time, but I worked on several prototypes until I had a better system that improved the experience for everyone in the store.
That’s when I realized that I enjoyed change – not for the sake of change – but in the sense of creating something better.
Q: How did you build your business by creating something better?
A: In 1954, New York City was becoming the fashion capital of the country. At the time, dresses had patterns with matching belts. The belts required a staple to complete the stich. My company, the General Staple Company, provided the staple for these belts.
In the early 60s, I went to visit the Garment District in New York City and we met a manufacturer who was just getting into the blue jeans business, a brand new fad.
Previously, zippers for trousers were all standard at 7’’ long and offered in 3 separate colors. The zipper on the blue jean was totally different with a non-standard wide, brass zipper. These zippers were sewn into trouser fronts from a 100-yard reel chain. The zipper itself had to have a bottom stop to prevent the slider from escaping the zipper chain.
To create the bottom stop for blue jeans an industrial operator would put the jeans under a track and use a foot pedal crimp it on the bottom side. If the operator’s leg was out of sync with the machine, then the track itself would bend. Both the operator and zipper producer would complain.
Looking at this problem, there was a solution. From a helicopter view, we realized that the blue jean bottom stop is a fat staple. We developed a machine that would fit the wire and crimp it around the zipper itself. It was magnificent!
Q: How did you decide to start the Moxie Foundation?
A: There was a boom in the blue jeans business with Levi Strauss and others. It was the rising tide that carried all boats. With new applications for staples in electronics industry and otherwise, the company grew handsomely.
I sold the business in August 2011 and decided to take some of the money and do something with it. I had made the money by taking a risk and jumping out of the normal mode. I wanted to provide this opportunity for others.
I convinced the engineering dean at the San Diego State University to start an incubator. The incubator is in the engineering department with a non-academic director to coach the students, and we offer lockers, office space and equipment to help develop projects. To attract students, we launched a contest with a one thousand dollar prize. The prize would qualify students to enter the incubator.
We now support three incubators through the Moxie Foundation: The Zahn Innovation Center at San Diego State University, The Moxie Center at University of California San Diego, The Zahn Center at City College, City University of New York.
Q: What kind of projects does the Moxie Foundation support through the incubators?
A: We wanted to grow the incubators to attract more students. We needed to advance our preliminary focus on commercial entrepreneurship to include social entrepreneurship.
With commercial entrepreneurship, we were dealing with engineering and business students only. I want to deal with every part of the university! History, art, and athletics… so we shifted the focus to include social responsibilities that would include students from all disciplines.
Q: Is there a student venture that has really stood out to you?
A: One example who comes to mind is Kevin Liang, a UCSD student who won a $1,000 prize at one of our first business plan competitions for EcoQube.
Picture a small fish tank on a table top. On top of the tank is a small garden, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet. This student created a system where the fish would fertilize the garden on top, eliminating the need to change the water in the tank.
Kevin was able to use space at UCSD to build a prototype. From there, Kevin was able to raise $75,000 through a KickStarter campaign and get manufacturing underway in China to fill the order. The aquaponics model also has applications for clean drinking water and food production.
When students like Kevin come into the incubator, they have a sketch on the back of the envelope. Assisted by cutting edge technology, such as 3D printers, and a little guidance, young leaders such as Kevin are able to learn the business lesson of showing ideas to customers and getting their feet on the ground in the real world.
Q: We are celebrating the launch of Moxie Foundation partnership with Ashoka’s University Program. Why partner with Ashoka U?
A: That’s a simple question. Ashoka U brings worldwide exposure to this world of entrepreneurship. Once students leave the university and go out into the world to get a job, they will need to take chances. Instead of just sitting at a computer at a desk and doing one thing at a time, let’s make a combination!
Ashoka U’s influence on universities will help many students think outside of the box and do more than simply what the job is. Ashoka uniquely has the breadth of many talented and committed people to make this possible
Q: Given your passion for education, what is your vision for the future?
A: One of the problems is the high school situation, which begs for a solution. Right now, it’s not an interesting experience to learn disparate topics. High school should be a hands-on experience that prepares you for college.
We now support high school programs, such as the Education Synergy Alliance in San Diego, through “Linked Learning” to make learning linked to career goals and aspirations.
Fast forwarding to future years, I’d like to see the curriculum changed. I want it to be a relevant experience. Instead of going into individual classes or periods, I think we should get rid of the concept of a 50-minute period. Let’s take a 4-hour period to build something with skilled instructors and enable students to do their own things and get their hands dirty.
By the way, the same thing holds for colleges. There is not enough hands-on learning. I want a Vice Chancellor of Entrepreneurship and see that they’re getting serious. Freshman orientation at universities should be about entrepreneurship and what to expect over 4 years. All classes should have a lab or an internship where you take all of that info and have to do something with it.
Q: Any final words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: Nothing really happens until you take a first step. You cannot just complain about what is wrong. That’s not enough. You have to go further, step out and do something. If you make a mistake, go forward and do it again!
ABOUT THE MOXIE FOUNDATION PARTNERSHIP WITH ASHOKA U
The Moxie Foundation is partnering with Ashoka U to raise standard and accessibility of social entrepreneurship programs at colleges and universities around the world. With the support of a $1.1 million gift from the Moxie Foundation, Ashoka U will embark on a new phase of global growth and expansion.
Over the course of the next three years, Ashoka U and the Moxie Foundation will work in collaboration to further embed the skills and values of social entrepreneurship education across a greater faction of education institutions.
Together, Ashoka U and Moxie hope that this partnership will lay the seeds of lasting change to benefit future generations of students in helping them foster creativity and build the entrepreneurial skillset they need to succeed in today’s ever-changing world.
Read more about Ashoka U’s partnership with the Moxie Foundation here: http://www.moxiefoundation.org/what-we-do/programs/education/ashoka-u/